341 | One Big Happy: Travel survey reveals how hotels can attract families

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FAMILY TRAVEL TRENDS: Rainer Jenss and his family rafting in 2008 in Chang Mai, Thailand, during their global vacation. As a result of that year-long trip, Jenss founded the Family Travel Association to give the industry information it can use to better serve traveling families.

Pre-stay communication and flexible booking policies vital for hospitality business growth, research reveals

The U.S. travel industry is in recovery and it’s families that are leading the way, according to Rainer Jenss, founder of the Family Travel Association.

FTA’s U.S. Family Travel Survey 2021 reveals what families are looking for when they go on vacation in the COVID-19 era.

The research shows little has changed with regard to the desire to travel but families with health and safety in mind favor certain destinations, excursion sites and experiences.

The report has some good news for hotels – they are the preferred accommodation for families.

Jenss founded FTA in 2014, a few years after he and his wife took their sons on a trip around the world. What they experienced made Jenss realize the travel industry needs to know more about family-vacation trends to better serve this lucrative market.

ONE BIG HAPPY: Traveling families are driving the hotel industry’s post-pandemic recovery, says the Family Travel Association, which recently published its annual U.S. Family Travel Survey. Episode 341 of Lodging Leaders podcast explores how hoteliers can use the data to attract families and increase business.

FTA has released a study on family travel every year since its start. The exception is last year, when few families took leisure trips amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We want to delve deep into consumers, what they’re thinking, their behaviors, their attitudes. This will help us as an industry better serve the needs and expectations of these consumers and of these families, which of course come in many different shapes and sizes,” Jenss said.

Lynn Minnaert is clinical associate professor and academic chair at New York University School of Professional Studies Jonathan M. Tisch Center of Hospitality, which co-authored the U.S. Family Travel Survey 2021.

Before the survey, there was little information about family travel trends and habits in the U.S. compared to other countries, she said. “Personally, it was a passion of mine because I’ve always been interested in how we encourage people to participate in travel.”

NYU uses the annual report to promote thought leadership in the industry and to advise industry partners, including hoteliers, hotel companies, attractions and destination markets on family-travel trends.

Overall, the U.S. Family Travel Survey 2021 shows that after a steep decline in 2020, family travel demand is coming back strong.

Of the more than 2,300 adult respondents surveyed in June and July, 88 percent plan to travel as a family sometime in next 12 months.

HOTELS PREFERRED: In its U.S. Family Travel Survey 2021, the Family Travel Association discovered hotels remain the most-preferred accommodation for families. It asked more than 2,300 survey respondents to check all that apply in answering the question ‘Do you plan to stay in each of the following types of accommodations on a family vacation in the coming 12 months?’ The survey was conducted in June and July.

Preferences Noted

The residual effects of the coronavirus pandemic and the shift it’s caused in traveler consumer habits is evident in this year’s report.

The findings that stood out the most to Jenss are related to travel agents and alternative lodging.

A portion of survey respondents said they’ve used travel agents in the past. But a larger share of respondents – 65 percent – said they would consider using a travel adviser in the next two years.

“The use of travel advisers to help families plan and execute successful vacations is now more important than ever,” he said. COVID has disrupted the travel industry and families face sudden changes in national and state safety protocols. For those reasons, Jenss said, “travel advisers can be an invaluable resource to travelers to help them navigate all these different challenges that COVID has presented us.”

The latest survey also reveals an increased use in short-term rentals. A little more than half of survey respondents said they preferred short-term rentals.

“This has been a trend that we’ve seen for quite some time,” Jenss said.

Families want to be outside more so campgrounds and resorts that provide outdoor options are popular. “These are places where families feel safe and where the protocols are consistent with the safety that they’re concerned about.”

But hotels remain the most popular choice for traveling families, with 74 percent selecting hotels over vacation rentals and resorts.

While that’s good news for the hotel industry, Minnaert advises owners and operators to not take it for granted and avoid becoming complacent about it.

STAYING TOGETHER: A connected room at the Hampton Inn & Suites Herndon-Reston in Virginia. Confirmed Connecting Rooms by Hilton is a new program that enables families and other groups to book connecting rooms at Hilton’s hotels. Hilton said 6,500 or about 80 percent of the hotels in its portfolio, including franchised properties, offer connecting rooms.

Connecting & Communicating

One company that’s adjusting to family travel preferences is Hilton. In June, the franchiser announced a program called Confirmed Connecting Rooms.

Using its established technology, Hilton allows guests to book connecting rooms when making their travel plans online.

Offering travel consumers options they can immediately decide upon in the booking process is a significant step in attracting families.

Communicating options as well as changes in protocols and policies in advance of a stay is highly valued by respondents in FTA’s study.

The association is not only talking about choices of room types. It also stresses the importance of communicating in advance of the trip with family travel planners.

“Communication now is more important than ever,” Minnaert said, noting that what is communicated depends on what a family is seeking when booking for vacation.

The U.S. Family Travel Survey revealed respondents fall into two camps, she said. “You have the families who are very concerned about COVID and they want to know if all the health-and-safety protocols are being followed.

“And then you have another group who is perhaps a bit more comfortable on the COVID side but is really focused on ‘Am I getting all the amenities that I’m looking for ?’ Will things be closed that I’m not expecting?’

What’s interesting about this year’s survey, Minnaert said, is in previous surveys there were usually some respondents who fall in the middle of a two-sided question. But, in this case, “they were either completely on the one side or completely on the other,” she said. That means hotels need to clearly communicate where they stand on safety and value creation. There’s no in-between.

See It to Believe It

The family travel survey respondents concerned about cleanliness and safety

want visible assurance that properties are free from health threats. Minnaert said some may argue against “hygiene theater” but hotels would do well to show guests they are taking their concerns seriously.

Hotels that make it a priority to communicate with the public and prospective guests will attract family travelers.

Most travel consumers understand when a hotel has to change standards in the COVID-19 era. But, Minnaert said, families still want the experience they paid for. They don’t necessarily expect to pay less than before the pandemic, but they want an experience commensurate with the cost.

In the U.S. Family Travel Survey 2021, as with previous surveys, affordability is the top challenge for families.

“Consumers are value-driven,” Minnaert said. “And they feel that vacations are a big-ticket item. They want a lot of value for that.”

Even families that can afford upscale stays want value for the money they’re spending. Although hotels may have had to cut back on housekeeping or serving breakfast, managers need to come up with ways “to provide value for guests and make them feel the product you offer is worth the headaches” of travel in the COVID-19 era, Minnaert said.

Those who plan the family vacation also are mindful of location. The 2021 survey showed families are less interested in visiting cultural and indoor attractions. If a hotel is in an area that’s popular for family or group travel, it’s smart to market experiences available outside the hotel.

Multi-Gen Trips

The Family Travel Survey revealed that women are the primary planners of a family vacation. Of the survey respondents, 95 percent are women. That is in line with previous surveys but has found a relatively new family travel influencer – grandparents.

Though multi-generational travel was a significant trend pre-pandemic, the forced isolation in 2020 has spurred an even greater movement in larger family-group travel.

More than half of respondents were planning to take a multi-generational trip, Minnaert said. “We also asked who is planning to travel with a wider family group – brothers, sisters, cousins, et cetera – and 45 percent said yes to that. So I don’t think people expect that kind of group travel right as a result of a pandemic when we were so concerned about getting together. Clearly the tide has changed there.”

Jenss said that pent-up demand to see family again is driving the surge in multi-generational travel.

“For the older side of the multigenic equation at the beginning of the pandemic, this was an issue and people did not feel comfortable visiting grandparents because of where we were with COVID at the time,” he said. “Now with the vaccines this has provided a whole new opportunity for families to get together as a multi-gen unit. There’s a lot more comfort there. And, in fact, grandparents are leading the charge.”

Another trend Jenss has observed is families traveling together. During COVID lockdowns, families spent time together in their own bubbles. And now they’re traveling together.

TRIP SEASONS: The U.S. Family Travel Survey 2021 asked 2,300 respondents when they planned to travel this year and next. Summer remains the top vacation season.

School Calendars

Each summer, STR publishes a report on U.S. school calendar breaks.

Last year, most schools operated remotely and children as well as working parents took their work with them on the road, turning hotel rooms in virtual offices and classrooms and unraveling seasonal-travel patterns.

This year, STR said, more schools have returned to traditional classroom settings.

In a news release announcing the School Break Report, STR noted school breaks greatly impact hotel performance.

More than half of students in K-through-12 schools as well as colleges returned to school by August 23rd.

With fewer families traveling in the fall and business travel still in hibernation mode, STR said hoteliers can anticipate higher leisure demand during long weekends and seasonal breaks.

The Family Travel Survey finds summer is the most popular season for family travel with 64 percent of respondents saying they planned a trip this past summer and 56 percent intending to travel next summer.

Next in line are this fall and spring 2022, with a little more than a third of respondents planning trips in each season.

Still, Jenss thinks demand is bottled up a bit for now.

“It doesn’t really feel quite like we’re ready for full-blown celebration across the board, but families in particular to make up for the big events and milestones that they missed this year is something to keep an eye on.”

Minnaert said the pandemic shutdown has not changed families’ favorite places to visit. The top four are friends and family; beaches; theme and water parks; and national and state parks.

Included in this year’s Family Travel Survey are responses to questions about COVID-19 vaccinations and related protocols.

Respondents are split on whether they favor vaccine passports, with more than half favoring them and about a quarter opposed.

Many respondents also said they take a state’s vaccination rate and its health protocols into account when planning a trip.

Minnaert said hotels that want to get leisure business on the books would do well to pay attention to local restrictions and COVID-19 infection rates and align their own policies to match the situation.

BOOKING WINDOWS: The U.S. Family Travel Survey 2021 shows the various booking times practiced by families planning a vacation.

The more flexible a hotel’s booking policy, the more likely it will attract business.

The practice of communicating clearly with guests extends to booking policies, including refunding advanced payments. Minnaert said. “Eight percent of our respondents said they will not book if there’s no flexible options. That is a whopping number.”

Overall, the Family Travel Survey offers hotel owners and operators useful information that helps them and the customers they’re trying to attract.

“This is a really good opportunity for hotels and the accommodations industry to create real customer loyalty among families,” Jenss said. “If you win a parent over because their child has a great experience, you got a customer for life. So take this market seriously because it could lead to certainly future business.”

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